Monday, April 14, 2008

No more Mr Nice Guy (Kihn book review)

The Irish Examiner did a feature piece on Martin Kihn's A$$HOLE: How I got Rich & Happy by Not Giving a S**t About You and asked me for my views. Extracts:


NO MORE MR NICE GUY

Martin Kihn was the office good guy, working hard but going nowhere fast - until he set out to become an asshole, writes Ailin Quinlan

Never smile. Glare a lot. Speak loudly and interrupt often. Claim credit for every idea as your own ... Because you're an asshole.

Martin Kihn, on the other hand, was not an asshole. he was, he insists, the nicest guy in the world. The kind of guy whose life was a dictionary without the word "No." Kihn was a guy who never got into a fight because to get into a fight you need a point of view. He was the kind of guy whose pet laughed at his commands and who was about to lose out on a major promotion at work because he was perceived to lack guts. ...

"I set out on a programme of self-realisation, learning how to remake myself into an asshole. It was a voyage of many months and thousands of dollars," he recalls. Kihn based a lot of his new-found techniques on the behaviour of a work colleague known as The Nemesis. this individual, says Kihn, provided lessons in the ways in which an A-plus Asshole can operate in the corridors of corporate America. ...

And so, Kihn became an asshole. the power trio of Sun Tzu, Machiavelli and Nietzsche became the rock stars of his life. His homework assignments included staring down strangers in the mall, deliberately disagreeing with the opinions of others, physically taking up more space and ignoring anything that was said to him: "You defer to no one, listen to no one, fear no one," he explains.

At work, he started to find it easier to interrupt others, dominate meetings and bully co-workers. He deliberately caused scenes on social outings in order to highlight his alpha maleness. It seemed to pay off - Kihn began to notch up some victories in the workplace. Superiors started to take more notice of him, a project he spear-headed was chosen as the company's pitch for a prestigious multi-million dollar account and he was eventually offered his longed-for promotion.

Kihn's behaviour is not uncommon, says Rowan Manahan, employment expert and MD of Fortify Services, a training and consulting firm in Dublin. In a work culture that rewards results and measures success solely by the top and bottom lines, he says, how you actually achieve the desired success stops being a priority. So psychopaths can do well - for a while. Research shows that between one and two percent of the population exhibit psychopathic tendency. Very few of these behave like the serial killers of Hollywood movies, but what is happening is that the corporate world rewards a certain kind of ruthlessness, single-mindedness and lack of conscience, remorse and basic empathy. So in some corporate environments, this type of behaviour succeeds.

"The 'Charming Asshole' works. The skilled psychopath will get on - knowing how far to push something is crucial. Push it too far and alienate the wrong person at the wrong time and it can all come tumbling down," says psychologist Odhran McCarthy. A lot of psychopaths can be successful, he says, but their techniques can also self-destruct. ...

And there are plenty of them around. Although they form only a tiny minority of the general population, studies have shown that the higher up the corporate ladder you go, the more individuals you find with this tendency. At the top levels, incidences of up to 14-16% have been found, says Manahan. "Nice guys really don't seem to get the corner office," he observes. ...

Manahan points to research by the Small Firms Association in Ireland on the jobs market, which showed that almost two-thirds of people who move job do so for reasons other than money or promotion. "People join great companies, but leave lousy managers. Even the best company in the world cannot compensate for an asshole boss - and for most people, the company equals a person's immediate supervisor."

The problem, he says, is that if the bottom line is healthy, a corporation will sometimes turn a blind eye to this kind of inappropriate behaviour. "There is a lot of 'tactical anger' being used in the workplace. It happens at all levels in both the public and private sectors."

Assholism can work for a limited period, but long term it probably won't succeed. Modern workforces are well-educated, says Manahan, and few employees will tolerate such silverback gorilla style tactics for long. It can also have a damaging effect on the whole company: "These individuals tend to be very insecure. A silverback will never let someone strong, confident, intelligent and secure filter up to the top. The silverback will surround himself with weak people - and that ends up putting pressure on everyone, because you don't have excellent people in the jobs and down the rod, the whole organisation suffers. Long-term, it can be a self-fulfilling doom cycle."

Manahan concedes that although the nice guy still won't get the corner office, he has yet to see bullying behaviour succeed in the long term. "In the workplace, there are bastards [or assholes] who don't know what they are, and there are assholes who do know it and use that knowledge accordingly. They are very alarming people to come up against. To date, I've never seen this behaviour get a person to the top, and keep him or her there with a happy, productive workforce and a successful business in the long term. Assholism is just not a recipe for success."

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